Saturday, March 24, 2012



Einstein didn't speak as a child
waiting till a sentence formed and
emerged full-blown from his head.

I do the thing, he later wrote, which
nature drives me to do. Does a fish
know the water in which he swims?

This came up in conversation
with a man I met by chance,
friend of a friend of a friend,

who passed through town carrying
three specimen boxes of insects
he'd collected in the Grand Canyon

one for mosquitoes, one for honeybees,
one for butterflies and skippers,
each lined up in a row, pinned and labeled,

tiny morphologic differences
revealing how adaptation
happened over time. The deeper down

he hiked, the older the rock
and the younger
the strategy for living in that place.

And in my dining room the universe
found its way into this man
bent on cataloging each innovation,

though he knows it will all disappear —
the labels, the skippers, the canyon.
We agreed then, the old friends and the new,

that it's wrong to think people are a thing apart
from the whole, as if we'd sprung
from an idea out in space, rather than emerging

from the sequenced larval mess of creation
that binds us with the others,
all playing the endgame of a beautiful planet

that's made us want to name
each thing and try to tell
its story against the vanishing.

~ Alison Hawthorne Deming, Genius Loci


a skipper

I remember how excited and happy I felt when my father told me that the sun was a star. I was eight, and felt in possession of great secret knowledge. Then, carefree, I asked, “Will the sun always shine?” My father said, “No. It will burn out and be a dead star.” Seeing how badly shaken I was, how disconsolate, he laughed and said, “Oh, but that won’t happen until ten million years from now. That’s a very long time.”

I relaxed, but somehow that knowledge that the sun will die would not go away. It was a cinder of sadness that stayed in my mind forever. The death of other stars didn’t bother me. It was fascinating to think that the still light reaching us might be from a dead star. But the sun, I knew, was the source of life, and the thought of it going out, ever, saddened me. It saddens me even now.

Maybe that’s one source of my instant fascination with Alison Deming’s poem. Another source was my familiarity, also since childhood, with “natural history” displays: specimens in jars or pinned down on a chart, meticulously labeled. This poem made me think of endless species, especially of insects, pinned and labeled, a tremendous labor of love gone into the collecting, identifying, ordering, preserving and presenting. It is indeed as if humanity’s great task was to name the animals, to classify them precisely, living or extinct, whose name and “story” we need to know, meaning both decode and imagine.

Ancient Nankoweap granaries

“Oh blessed rage for order!” And the rage for order of a future taxonomist who may reclassify. The Logos, the collective psyche, is also a kind of Grand Canyon: the layers of knowledge and understanding that it has taken centuries to accumulate. But for now, I revel in how the poet makes a leap from something as small as an insect to the unimaginable enormity of the universe:

in my dining room the universe
found its way into this man
bent on cataloguing each innovation,

though he knows it will all disappear —
the labels, the skippers, the canyon.

Yes, this labor of love in the face of mortality is certainly the main point of “Enigma.” But another important point, it seems to me, is the fact that we are not “separate, different, and superior,” a “chosen species” that exploits nature rather than feels a part of it. Our genome clearly shows our kinship to other primates, and to animals in general. We are not “celestials.” We did not come, by UFO or teleportation, from another solar system; we were not “seeded” by super-beings from another universe. Nor, as the poem puts it in grander terms, did we emerge “from an idea out in space.” No, we evolved “from the larval mess of creation” (a marvelous phrase) right here:

It’s wrong to think people are a thing apart
from the whole, as if we’d sprung
from an idea out in space, rather than emerging

from the sequenced larval mess of creation
that binds us with the others,
all playing the endgame of a beautiful planet

The disdain of certain New Age writers for the earth, their insistence that humans came from a remote planet, or else from “another plane of existence” that had nothing to do with the body and dangerous “body fluids” and other slimy stuff that pollutes our auras, has always puzzled me. “My friends can’t wait to disincarnate,” a New Age acquaintance once told me. True, the body is to some extent a bother, but personally I’d be willing to put up with having to brush my teeth and other body upkeep for centuries, even millennia, if only I could go on living here on earth, in the joy of having the body and its senses, taking in the beauty. I don’t think I’d ever get bored with sunsets, clouds, waves, forests. Or with human eccentricities, for that matter.

What of it, some may ask, if it’s all doomed to extinction? If this is “the endgame of a beautiful planet,” then what is the “meaning” of the universe, the earth, the human mind that can name and classify and tell stories? Part of my journey has been to realize that some questions are the wrong questions. “What’s the meaning of life?” is a particularly wrong question, a dangerous question that can drive people insane; some are said to have committed suicide from too much staring into the abyss.

The human brain is magnificent, but it doesn’t seem to function at its best when dealing with huge abstractions, with absolutes like THE meaning of life – THE answer, THE truth, one universal meaning, the same for everyone, rather than something each unique person needs both to discover and create in his or her image.

Tolstoy, you may recall, did ask that question, could not find a satisfying answer, and fell into despair. First he thought that the answer lay in religion – if only we could discover the “true religion,” not the corrupt versions preached by churches. But ultimately he could accept only an impersonal deity who doesn’t interfere with the laws of nature, with “necessity” – and that’s not the protective Great Parent who could soothe us when we have bad dreams.

Worse than bad dreams – who hasn’t at some point felt the urge to end the journey right now, once and for all – to taste the imaginary sweetness of oblivion precisely because life doesn’t seem to make sense (“Life is a bitch; then you die”)? And didn’t Nietzsche say that we have art so we don’t die of the truth?

Deming’s poem doesn’t even attempt to explain the universe; it says only that the universe exists, the earth exists and is beautiful, life exists, we humans exist. We may extrapolate that therefore we should use our existence to do something that’s good, or interesting, or beautiful – ideally all of the above. To extrapolate further, at our personal and collective best have a “beautiful mind” (“Life is a bitch, but just when you least expect it, it has puppies.”)

But all the poem is willing to state clearly is that the universe exists, the earth exists, and we exist – and something about the way the earth is and the way we are has given humans the urge to explore and name and classify, to be curious about everything that exists or has existed (the Grand Canyon being the most amazing natural history museum), to want to know and preserve the stories we discover.

Poems are mostly about mortality. However, those poems that I call “comfort poems” find beauty and personal purpose in spite of mortality. We are of the moment, they say, but isn’t it magnificent to be alive, to possess that moment? Once we are fully conscious that we don’t have very much time, we can use our moment for happiness rather than self-destruction, kindness rather than harm. As the title of Deming’s poem tells us, we answer the enigma of being alive simply by living.

Though this is beyond the poem itself, I can’t resist pointing to numerous studies that show people generally become happier as they grow older. We learn how to be happy, more generous, more forgiving. The less life we have left, the more we seem to love it, to love the moment. We answer not in the abstract, but by living.



My favorite line is "Life is a bitch, but just when you least expect it, it has puppies." Thanks for sharing the poem. The naming of things comes early. My great-grandson Jacob took out the odd things I've collected  in a basket, pine cones, seed pods, shells , leaves, bark. Seemed delighted with the labeling, then put them carefully back. I learn a lot from children.


We are obviously wired for wanting to name things. It may be part of our innate language acquisition circuitry. 


Grand Canyon pictures are so magical, especially the one with the bow in the sky.

Only a really happy person could write this: "I don’t think I’d ever get bored with sunsets, clouds, waves, forests. Or with human eccentricities, for that matter."

I totally agree with your questions like, “What’s the meaning of life?”, "Does God exist?", "What came before the Big Bang?" Answer is that it doesn't matter. What matters to me is how can I become a better artist or how can I become a better human being?


Even before I chose to be happy, I couldn’t stop being curious about “what next.” I have always found the world endlessly fascinating and beautiful. This, I think, has kept me from suicide. What if something fascinating were around the corner? And I was always surprising myself. When that ceased happening, when depressive thoughts got to be more of the same, I got bored with depression, its staleness, the trite repetitions. That feeling of boredom made it easier for me to reach the point of paradigm shift, though the biggest factor was my belated grasp of mortality: finally seeing how little time is left. Only a limited number of sunsets; better not to miss any. And the uniqueness of each human being is an astonishing thing in itself.

I agree that we “answer by living.” Even the existence or non-existence of god is after all not as important as how we treat others and the earth. If there is a god worthy of worship, no denominational label can be attached to that worship. Picking mushrooms the caring way, leaving the underground mycelium intact, strikes me as a form of worship superior to praying the rosary.

Sometimes I do wonder what, if anything, existed before the Big Bang. But since I’m not an astrophysicist, I know that I’m not able to find an answer to that question, and I happily leave it to those who get paid to think about these matters, and can point to some evidence, e.g. a slight asymmetry in the shape of Big Bang radiation supposedly hinting at some residue of a previous universe. I can spend a few moments pondering that, why not. Then I look again at my to-do list.


I very well recall Tolstoy's 'quest' that led him in his old age to flee the warmth of friends and family to die at a deserted train station. And Melville, who several times in his  life, rounded the Horn for the wide Pacific, through the straits of  Gibraltar and the despair of being a forgotten writer (yet Tolstoy was  beloved...but just as sad) I say, hitch my wagon to a man like Tolkien: a great lover of poetry, a devoted husband and father, a man who enjoyed his many friendships and his work and lived to old age and was able to see his children launched on their own careers and the last few years of his life his own masterpiece was being admired and praised.

Now Tolstoy and Melville still have important things to say, and you know very well my admiration for Melville especially. But they can also be quite the 'buzzkill' as the kids say! I can't live my life reflecting on the bad that can happen; I'm sure it's out there but so is the is the good. And those good things are soooo abundant  and thankfully simple and attainable; a cup of coffee, a good novel or  book of verse, a woodpecker at my feeder. Yes, it will all pass but while I have it, I won't dwell on losing it. Now, your blog and my recent book of verse by Hafiz; a 14th century mystic poet speak volumes more than the petty squabbles at work. As I have written before, I am absolutely fascinated with the Quakers of Nantucket who settled Europe and the Americas...then sent their ships into every sea, searching for a 'New Nantucket.'

I continue that journey, even though I'm not a Quaker....or whaler! I declare my house 'Nova Nantucket'; a refuge port from where I can, through books, TV and the www explore the world around me while not having to risk shipwreck on the world's reefs. Oh I still have to work, still will of course deal with the strife and storms of life in the modern age but every night I will tie up here at home port and enjoy my family and be thankful for what I have. I will do this... I must; the alternative is to be bitter about life's pettiness and fearful, sad, and morose a Twain became thinking on what 'bad' things might occur. That's not life....that's existing, and a sorry existence at that.

I do so much appreciate the blog you maintain; the images and musings are incredibly insightful. You are truly, as C S Lewis would say, “a mind awake.”


In one of his most famous poems, “A Brief for the Defense, Jack Gilbert says,

To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

That’s why social activists can be insufferable: the fixation on what’s wrong (though I know I should be glad that someone is willing to look at the nastiness and screaming about it). To thrive, we need beauty and tenderness, and interesting sights, books, sensations, interactions and other stimulation to keep our brains humming. I happen to be an “augmenter”: I automatically augment stimuli so that a little bit goes a long way. This is very adaptive if you live in the suburbs. In Warsaw, if I wanted some new stimulation, I could just look out the window. Here I had to find other sources of nourishment. As you say, a cup of coffee and a good book, the wind in the leaves – that’s so wonderful and forever changing: “nothing twice,” as Szymborska famously said (the song was a part of her memorial service).  I could live forever and not get bored.

So my answer to anyone who asks about the meaning of life is “Keep on living. Life itself will show you what is most meaningful in your existence.” 

Or, as the Buddha said, The purpose of life is to find your purpose in life, and then to live it fully. 


After a semi-surrealist poetry workshop:

I feel tremendously thistled by David Whyte’s saying we come from another world, not from this night but a “greater night.” No, we milkweed-parachuted here on earth, blown over by the erotic wind. Whyte imagines some spirit world – residing where? Inside a black hole? Then, to placate those possible listeners who don’t buy his “greater night” line, Whyte says, “or by an equally great miracle to have evolved in this world.”

What does he mean, “equally”? What could be a greater miracle than having started right here, “in the larval mess”? 

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